Is the Benedict Option Really an Option?
A Critique and Assessment of the Book The Benedict Option and the Interview
Between Al Mohler and the Author of the Book, Rod Dreher
IIn February 2017, Al Mohler, who is president of Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky and host of the radio program, Thinking in Public, conducted an interview on his radio program with Rod Dreher discussing his new book, The Benedict Option. The actual interview can be found here. A transcript of the interview can be found here.
The subtitle of the book sums up its theme and intended purpose: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. In this book Rod Dreher is offering what he deems to be strategic advice for the whole of professing Christendom, embracing the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant and Protestant Evangelical communions, for being able to withstand what he believes is the coming Dark Age in Western culture. As he puts it in the interview:
I believe that we are on the edge of and in fact within the collapse of Western civilization. It’s a very comfortable collapse because we’re rich; but it is collapsing, nonetheless, in the same way that the Roman civilization collapsed in the West in the 5th century. I believe that Christians now have got to realize that we’re living in a post-Christian civilization and take measures to build a kind of ark for ourselves with which to ride out the dark ages, to hold onto our faith, and tender the faith for such a time as light returns and civilization wants to hear the gospel again.
In his book he writes:
The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West. There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America. This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it. For a long time we have downplayed or ignored the signs. Now the floodwaters are upon us-and we are not ready.
The storm clouds have been gathering for decades, but most of us believers have operated under the illusion that they would blow over. The breakdown of the natural family, the loss of traditional moral values, and the fragmenting of communities-we were troubled by these developments but believed they were reversible and didn’t reflect anything fundamentally wrong with our approach to faith. Our religious leaders told us that strengthening the levees of law and politics would keep the flood of secularism at bay. The sense one had was: There’s nothing here that can’t be fixed by continuing to do what Christians have been doing for decades-especially voting for Republicans.
Today we can see that we’ve lost on every front and that the swift and relentless currents of secularism have overwhelmed our flimsy barriers. Hostile secular nihilism has won the day in our nation’s government, and the culture has turned powerfully against traditional Christians. We tell ourselves that these developments have been imposed by a liberal elite, because we find the truth intolerable: The American people, either actively or passively, approve (The Benedict Option (New York: Sentinel, 2017), pp. 8-9).
Rod is clearly seeking to ring alarm bells in an attempt to awaken a sleeping church to the coming storm so that it can prepare itself to withstand what he sees as the monolithic shift in western culture from a Christian worldview to a totally secularist, materialistic worldview that is openly hostile to everything true Christianity stands for and which will therefore be very antagonistic or simply dismissive of the Church. And he claims that the answer to the impending collapse of western civilization for the survival of the church in the western world is the advice and strategy he maps out in his book. He writes:
I have written The Benedict Option to wake up the church to encourage it to act to strengthen itself, while there is still time. If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and in practice. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what the cost…I will explain how the Christian virtues embodied in the sixth-century Rule of Saint Benedict, a monastic guidebook that played a powerful role in preserving Christian culture throughout the so-called Dark Ages, can help all believers today (Ibid., pp. 3, 4).
The question is whether the advice he offers is viable.
Rod Dreher is a journalist. He is senior editor at the American Conservative where he writes on social and religious issues, especially as they relate to American and broader Western culture. By his own admission he was raised in a very nominal mainline Protestant church environment and then converted to Roman Catholicism as a young man. As a result of the worldwide sexual scandal that has engulfed the Roman Catholic Church in recent years, Rod became disillusioned with the Church and subsequently converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, which is his present affiliation.
The title of his book, The Benedict Option, is a reference to Benedict of Nursia, the founder of a major monastic movement in the early 6th century after the fall of the Roman empire. The Benedictine order within Roman Catholicism is the outgrowth of the monasteries established by Benedict. Rod believes that the answer to the coming Dark Age and demise of western civilization is the implementation within overall church life and in the lives of professing believers of the communions within overall Christendom, of the Rule of Benedict that he established for governing the spiritual and practical life of those committed to the monastic way of life he founded. Rod sees direct historical parallels between the fall of the Roman empire and the ensuing dark ages that engulfed the western world in those early centuries and the coming Dark Age for our own times. Rod believes that the monastic movement was instrumental in not only preserving the Church after the fall of Rome but in revitalizing the culture of the West and preserving it. Dreher’s major focus in the book is on a group of Roman Catholic American monks who have gone to Norcia in Italy, the place to Benedict’s birth, and have reestablished the old monastery there and are living lives dedicated to the Rule of Benedict. He touts it as a place of supreme spirituality and shining example of what the church could potentially be in the day in which we live.
I was immediately intrigued by the title of the book and by Al Mohler’s willingness to interview Rod Dreher because I was raised Roman Catholic and attended a preparatory school run by a Benedictine monastery throughout my high school years where I benefited from a classical education. My Roman Catholic experience as a child and adolescent was pre-Vatican 2 in which I was regularly exposed to the Latin mass, was an altar boy, and would often attend vespers in the monastery where the monks chanted Psalms and prayers in Latin. I am very familiar with the Benedictine way of life.
I have listened to this interview and have read the transcript. I decided to purchase the book because I wanted to get a more detailed understanding of what he was saying. Having read the book and listened to the interview I have come to the conclusion that the book really needs to be addressed from a solid evangelical and biblical perspective because I do not believe The Benedict Option is a real option for the church in the day in which we live or an answer for the doomsday scenario painted by Rod.
The book definitely has some prescient and interesting points and I believe constructive analysis for the state of the professing Christian Church in Western culture in the 21st century. He is “right on” in assessing the problem. The problem I have with the book is that I believe his solution is woefully inadequate, speaking as one who is a former Roman Catholic and part of a Benedictine monastery. Certainly what Rod writes he writes from a heart of genuine concern and sincerity to see real Christianity lived out, but I believe his solution is inadequate because he does not address the root of the problem. His solution is like trying to deal with a cancer with a band-aid. There is a huge problem which he accurately describes and there is an answer, but that answer is not forthcoming in this book because the answer he gives is not biblical. The scriptures give us the answer. And while Rod certainly alludes to the Bible, he fails to give the answer the Bible actually provides which is all about the gospel and true salvation. There is a stunning and glaring omission in his interview with Al Mohler and in his book and that is a clearly defined understanding of the gospel. The ‘word’ gospel is used but it is never defined and he assumes that the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Evangelical communions all share a common gospel and salvation which is simply not true. The fact of the matter is, there is a huge problem of superficiality, worldliness and corruption in the professing church today precisely because Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and much, though not all, of Evangelicalism have repudiated the true biblical gospel which was proclaimed at the Reformation. Its ironic that Dreher is calling for the adoption of monastic spiritual disciplines that are grounded on a Roman Catholic theological foundation, a communion which has anathematized the Eastern Orthodox – of which Rod Dreher is a member. And the Eastern Orthodox Church hardly considers Rome to be orthodox. (A more detailed documentation of Eastern Orthodox belief can be found here and for Roman Catholicism here).
I also felt the need to address The Benedict Option because I feel that Al Mohler did an inadequate job of doing so. I know Al Mohler well enough to know that he does not agree with either Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox theology. He is a staunch defender of the Reformation. In the interview he does make clear that he believes the theological issues separating the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Reformational Evangelical churches are not minor. But in this interview he leaves the impression that he is in agreement with the spirituality that is rooted in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologies. He has left many people confused with this interview thinking he has compromised for he never really addresses the fundamental issue of the gospel. He alludes to it, but the impression unfortunately is left with the listener or reader that he believes the Benedict Option is indeed a real option for the Church of our day.
Assessing the Problem
There are some good and interesting points that Dreher makes in the book relative to the historical development of western culture that have contributed to the increasing secularization that we see today and to his analysis of the current state of the church. The following lengthy excerpt from his book is well worth reading as an accurate appraisal of the spiritual state of the professing Christian church:
Not only have we lost the public square, but the supposed high ground of our churches is no safe place either. Well, so what if those around us don’t share our morality? We can still retain our faith and teaching within the walls of our churches, we may think, but that’s placing unwarranted confidence in the health of our religious institutions. The changes that have overtaken the West in modern times have revolutionized everything, even the church, which no longer forms souls but caters to selves. As conservative Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner has said, “There is no safe place in the world or in our churches within which to be a Christian. It is a new epoch.”
Don’t be fooled by the large number of churches you see today. Unprecedented numbers of young adult Americans say they have no religious affiliation at all. According to the Pew Research Center, one in three 18-to-29-year-olds have put religion aside, if they ever picked it up in the first place.’ If the demographic trends continue, our churches will soon be empty.
Even more troubling, many of the churches that do stay open will have been hollowed out by a sneaky kind of secularism to the point where the “Christianity” taught there is devoid of power and life. It has already happened in most of them. In 2005, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton examined the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers from a wide variety of backgrounds. What they found was that in most cases, teenagers adhered to a mushy pseudo religion the researchers deemed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).3
MTD has five basic tenets:
– A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
– God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
– The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
– God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
– Good people go to heaven when they die.
This creed, they found, is especially prominent among Catholic and Mainline Protestant teenagers. Evangelical teenagers fared measurably better but were still far from historic biblical orthodoxy. Smith and Denton claimed that MTD is colonizing existing Christian churches, destroying biblical Christianity from within, and replacing it with a pseudo-Christianity that is “only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition.”
MTD is not entirely wrong. After all, God does exist, and He does want us to be good. The problem with MTD, in both its progressive and its conservative versions, is that it’s mostly about improving one’s self-esteem and subjective happiness and getting along well with others. It has little to do with the Christianity of Scripture and tradition, which teaches repentance, self-sacrificial love, and purity of heart, and commends suffering – the Way of the Cross – as the pathway to God. Though superficially Christian, MTD is the natural religion of a culture that worships the Self and material comfort.
As bleak as Christian Smith’s 2005 findings were, his follow-up research, a third installment of which was published in 2011, was even grimmer. Surveying the moral beliefs of 18-to-23-year-olds, Smith and his colleagues found that only 40 percent of young Christians sampled said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or some other religious sensibility. It’s unlikely that the beliefs of even these faithful are biblically coherent. Many of these “Christians” are actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality.
An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”
These are not bad people. Rather, they are young adults who have been terribly failed by family, church, and the other institutions that formed-or rather, failed to form-their consciences and their imaginations.
MTD is the de facto religion not simply of American teenagers but also of American adults. To a remarkable degree, teenagers have adopted the religious attitudes of their parents. We have been an MTD nation for some time now.
“America has lived a long time off its thin Christian veneer, partly necessitated by the Cold War,” Smith told me in an interview. “That is all finally being stringed away by the combination of mass consumer capitalism and liberal individualism.”
The data from Smith and other researchers make clear what so many of us are desperate to deny: the flood is rising to the rafters in the American church. Every single congregation in America must ask itself if it has compromised so much with the world that it has been compromised in its faithfulness. Is the Christianity we have been living out in our families, congregations, and communities a means of deeper conversion, or does it function as a vaccination against taking faith with the seriousness the Gospel demands?
Nobody but the most deluded of the old-school Religious Right believes that this cultural revolution can be turned back. The wave cannot be stopped, only ridden. With a few exceptions, conservative Christian political activists are as ineffective as White Russian exiles, drinking tea from samovars in their Paris drawing rooms, plotting the restoration of the monarchy. One wishes them well but knows deep down that they are not the future (Ibid., pp. 9-10)…
Dreher then goes on to give an assessment of why he considers the Benedict Option to be a viable solution to the superficial nature of so much of present day professing Christianity:
The Benedict Option is vital to the life of the local church today. Why? Benedictine spirituality is good at creating a Christian culture because it is all about developing and sustaining the Christian cultus, a Latin word meaning “worship.” A culture is the way of life that emerges from the common worship of a people. What we hold most sacred determines the form and content of our culture, which emerges organically from the process of making a faith tangible.If it is going to bring about a genuine renewal of Christian culture, the Benedict Option will have to be centered on the life of the church. Everything else follows.
In some sense, Christians’ new minority status may help us keep our focus where it ought to be. As Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore says in his book Onward, by losing its cultural respectability, the church is freer to be radically faithful.
“We will engage the culture less like chaplains of some idyllic Mayberry and more like the apostles in the book of Acts,” writes Moore. ‘we will be speaking not primarily to baptized pagans on someone’s church roll, but to those who are hearing something new, maybe for the first time. We will hardly be ‘normal,’ but we should never have tried to be” (Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (Nashville: B&H Books, 2015), 27).
The best witness Christians can offer to post-Christian America is simply to be the church, as fiercely and creatively a minority as we can manage. “By this will all men will know that you are my disciples,” the Lord said in the Gospel of John, and if we stand a chance today, we do only because of His love lived out through us – to our brothers and sisters in Christ and then out to our world.
But you cannot give what you do not possess. Too many of our churches function as secular entertainment centers with religious morals slapped on top, when they should be functioning as the living breathing Body of Christ. Too many churches have succumbed to modernity, rejecting the wisdom of past ages, treating worship as a consumer activity, and allowing parishioners to function as unaccountable, atomized members. The sad truth is, when the world sees us it fails to see anything different from nonbelievers. Christians often talk about “reaching the culture” without realizing that, having no distinct Christian culture of their own, they have been co-opted by the secular culture they wish to evangelize. Without a substantial Christian culture, its no wonder that our children are forgetting what it means to be Christian, and no surprise that we are not bringing in new converts.
If today’s churches are to survive the new Dark Age, they must stop “being normal.” We will need to commit ourselves more deeply to our faith, and we will need to do that in ways that seem odd to contemporary eyes. By rediscovering the past, recovering liturgical worship and asceticism, centering our eyes on the church community, and tightening our church discipline, we will, by God’s grace, again become the peculiar people we should always have been. The fruits of this focus on Christian formation will result not only in stronger Christians but in a new evangelism as the salt recovers its savor (The Benedict Option, pp. 101-102).
There are some excellent observations Dreher makes in these comments. His assessment of the contemporary Christian church scene is dead on. Any serious thinking believer cannot help but applaud his synopsis and I appreciate the fact that he makes this application across the board to evangelical, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions. And the solution he recommends is, in part, the correct one. He states truly that the church has moved far away from its biblical calling and the answer to the crisis facing it is that the church simply needs to be what the church is called to be. And then he states that to implement that strategy what is needed is the application of the spirituality and disciplines of the Benedict option which include a return to the ancient tradition of the church, the recovery of liturgical worship (by which he means preferably a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox style liturgy (with its peculiar emphasis on the eucharist), ascetisim, a focus on church community and a reinvigorated church discipline.
I agree that the answer is for the church to recover its biblical calling and to simply be the church but I question Rod Dreher’s advice for how that is accomplished. The last half of The Benedict Option is a detailed explanation of the above mentioned points of liturgical worship, asceticism, community and discipline and the call for individual churches and individuals to implement these disciplines and practices into their lives in order to revive the church. But this is not a viable option because it is not biblical. His assessment of Moral Therapeutic Deism and self absorption as the overall characteristic of modern day professing Christians is simply proof that these ‘Christians’ are not true Christians because the word of God states quite explicitly that that kind of life is lawless and will not inherit the kingdom of God (Matt. 7:13-24). And therefore to simply call non-Christians to a commitment to spiritual disciplines and asceticism is to miss the point. I am not saying that real worship and spiritual disciplines and commitment to the life of the church and church discipline are not important or unnecessary but in and of themselves they will never produce the fundamental change that is needed in the church in individual lives. What is needed is a radical transformation in the very foundations of the lives of individuals in their hearts which will then affect the overall life of the church and that is not accomplished through the means suggested by Rod Dreher. For disciplines to work and be a reflection of true spirituality a person must first be saved and know Christ and be born again – truly converted. Rod makes this comment in his book relative to the Rule of Benedict:
The Rule is not the gospel. It is a proven strategy for living the gospel in an intensely Christian way. It is an instruction manual for how to form one’s life around the service of Jesus Christ, within a strong community (The Benedict Option, p. 53).
While Rod acknowledges that the Rule he is endorsing is not itself the gospel, there is a problem raised with his statement, in that he never defines what the biblical gospel is. He makes the assumption throughout his book that the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Evangelical Churches all share the same gospel. But what is needed is the imposition of real commitment of one’s life as defined by the Rule of Benedict, the Benedict Option. But the answer is not the Benedict Option. The answer that we need a return to the biblical gospel and its preaching and application because the gospel is ‘the power of God to salvation’ (Rom. 1:16). Some might object here that the many of these individuals whose lives are characterized by MTD have heard and responded to the gospel. However, as we will see, the message the vast majority have heard is a distortion of the biblical message. It simply is not true. It deceives men. If a man or woman is truly saved the scriptures teach they will live in submission to the will and word of God and will not live for self and that this is the evidence they have been truly saved and are true Christians:
By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him (1 John 2:3-4).
He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf (2 Corinthians 5:15).
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’ (Matthew 7:21–23).
According to the above scriptures, those who are characterized by an MTD lifestyle do not know Christ even though they may be professing Christians and part of the visible Church. They do not do the will of God and keep His commandments but live for the cult of self and therefore they have never entered into the experience of true salvation. The starting point of becoming a Christian, as we will see, is denial of self. Simply to exhort these individuals with unconverted lawless hearts to commit themselves to spiritual disciplines and asceticism in the belief that these activities will make them spiritual is to deceive them. Their lives may become more disciplined but they will not be truly godly and righteous. They may become more religious but their religiousness will be devoid of life and power and utterly useless in withstanding the darkness that is looming.
In his Epistle to the Colossians the apostle Paul gives us a critical assessment of the practice of asceticism where he enjoins those believers not to be deceived by such supposed spirituality that is divorced from the gospel and the experience of true salvation:
Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence (Col. 2:18-23).
The church has become what it is because it has abandoned the preaching of the true gospel. The lives of people reflect it and the church has, as Dreher rightly states, ‘succumbed to modernity.’ Rod bemoans the fact that in the corruption of the church we are on the verge of losing conservative moral values and the demise of western civilization. But the ultimate issue is not about saving western civilization or preserving conservative moral values but about the gospel. This is the biblical answer which will lead to the revival and reformation of the church which will in turn have an impact upon the world because the church will once again become salt and light. What is needed is the radical conversion of men and women who have been deceived by a false gospel or who have simply adopted a Christian church commitment without a full understanding of what the gospel truly means or what the nature of true Christianity is. The fact of the matter is, as we will see, the true biblical gospel is rarely preached in the day in which we live and its is that alone which will enable the church to withstand the Dark Age that may be coming because the gospel is the true foundation for genuine Christianity. Without it, no matter how much liturgical worship or asceticism or spiritual disciplines one has, there will be no life or reality or power because there is no true salvation. What you end up with are men and women who profess Christ and are religious but who do not truly know Him. We need to learn a lesson from the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. These were men who were circumcised, supremely committed to the word of God, to asceticism, to liturgical worship, and to spiritual disciplines but they did not know God. They were very religious but they had no spiritual life and their religion was dead. Jesus, in quoting the prophet Isaiah, proclaims to them that while they went through the motions to worship the true and living God and honored Him with their lips that their worship was completely in vain because their hearts were far from Him (Mt. 15:8).
The foundation to everything is the gospel and its the one thing Rod Dreher does not address in his book. It is interesting that he uses the example of Roman Catholic monks in Italy who have committed themselves to the spirituality of the Benedict Option who have a foundation of Roman Catholic soteriology, which is completely contrary to the word of God, as the supreme example of true Christian experience for the day in which we live. The Roman Catholic teaching of salvation is a denial of the biblical gospel. There is a reason why the Reformation of the 16th century was necessary and why it is necessary to be experienced again for our present day. The Reformation was a recovery of the true biblical gospel to counter the corruption of the church of that day. It is what is needed for the present day Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches and the for the evangelical church as well because the evangelical church of our day, in the main, has completely abandoned the reformation and biblical gospel. This is not to say that every evangelical church is preaching a corrupted gospel because there are some which are true and faithful and have real life and power and true spirituality and which have vital worship and a commitment to real biblical holiness of life. I like the comments that Al Mohler made in the interview with Rod Dreher as the interview was drawing to a close:
MOHLER:…And, by the way, most of what you suggest in The Benedict Option in terms of what you call this kind of new monastic type of understanding of Christianity and embeddedness, most of it is stuff we already know we’re supposed to be doing.
DREHER: It’s just the church being the church. But as Leah Labresco Sergent, one of my friends, is quoted in the book, she says that: “This is just the church being the church. But if you don’t call it the Benedict Option, people aren’t going to do it.” So this is nothing new. We’re just rediscovering an old tradition, things that our ancestors knew. And look, I think that whether we’re evangelical, Catholic, or Orthodox, we need to go back to the early church to see how our ancestors did it, see what they did, see how they embodied the faith and culture and practices. You’re seeing on the evangelical side James K.A. Smith, for example, the Calvin College philosopher who’s written a really good book about the importance of practices, You Are What You Love. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. Evangelicals may use slightly different language than Catholics or Orthodox, but ultimately it’s the same thing.
MOHLER: Well here we are having a conversation of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, that is in the year 2017, and I’m, as an evangelical, speaking to someone who is Eastern Orthodox and had been Catholic, and we can have just about every theological conversation and controversy in the history the Christian church right in this room and in this conversation right now. But I want to turn the tables just a little bit, and I want to ask you a question from your vantage point, and I know you’ll be honest. Does evangelical Christianity, as you understand it, have adequate resources to be sufficiently thick?
DREHER: I don’t know. And I’m being completely honest with you, because evangelicalism is one thing I haven’t been. I was raised mainline Protestant in a very lukewarm church, came to Christ as a Roman Catholic and now Eastern Orthodox, but I really don’t know. I look at evangelicals from the outside, evangelical friends who are living the life, and I think, “Well, they can do it. Why can’t all evangelicals do it?” But then in my own case, my life is shaped around liturgy that’s been in our church for 1500 years. My life is shaped around the chanting of Psalms and on all kinds of sensual ways that embody the faith. Of course you can have smells and bells and go straight to hell, that doesn’t change you and lead to greater conversion. But for me as an Orthodox Christian and me as a Catholic, the faith had more traction and it drew me in closer and closer. I don’t know if evangelicals can do that, because as I look at evangelicalism I see people who are zealous for the Lord, no doubt about it, but also susceptible to every trend that comes along.
DREHER: I don’t want to be insulting, but…
MOHLER: I asked you the question, you’re not being insulting.
DREHER: In my book, I talked to an evangelical friend, Lance Kenser, he is lives in suburban Kansas City, Kansas, was a state legislator, is a PCA Presbyterian, and he tells me that he didn’t realize until the last couple years that the church was supposed to be about more than just going on Sunday to get a pep talk to help you go out and live real life. This has completely changed his life. He had this realization, and he works for religious liberty and religious liberty activism and has come to see the enormous threat facing the Christian church in America. He’s gotten more and deeply involved in his own congregation. He’s leading a class on St. Augustine’s City of God, which St. Augustine wrote to explain to the Romans, Roman Christians, “Hey, what happened? The Empire’s gone, what happened?” And Lance says that working at the local church to thicken their ties to each other and put the roots down more deeply in their own Reformed tradition is what’s consuming him now.
MOHLER: But that’s going to make the point where I would have to answer my own question. I do not believe evangelicalism has sufficient resources for a thick enough Christianity to survive either this epoch or much beyond.
DREHER: So what we do then? What do you do?
MOHLER: Well it’s because I think evangelical-ism as an-ism, is a particular moment in history. The identity has to be, as I see it, in the best way to describe the conversation between us, as historic Protestant. In other words, it takes historic Protestantism, in other words, I am deeply, unashamedly rooted in that which we mark in terms of a 500th anniversary right now. I do believe in the necessary reformation of the church and what the Reformers taught. But modern evangelicalism lacks the theological substance either of the Reformation or the Reformers because the Reformers themselves, Luther and Calvin amongst them, were not at all hesitant, even as they affirmed sola scriptura and did so with full heart and soul, to go back and cite Augustine. They knew they were standing on the shoulders of those who had come before, and they sought to make that very clear. They stood on the creedal consensus of historic Christianity and thus confessional Protestantism, I would argue, is and must be—can be—sufficiently thick. But evangelicalism? Well, not so much.
DREHER: I tell you, it gives me hope to hear you say that, because I don’t know evangelicalism well enough to make a solid critique of it. I know what I see as an Orthodox Christian, but I also know that the Benedict Option is not going to worker if I stand there and tell evangelicals, “Hey, leave the evangelical church; become Orthodox or become Catholic.” Because I actually don’t believe that that’s possible or feasible. That’s why I say that there’s got to be resources in the Reformation tradition for Protestants to go back to. And to hear you say that really encourages me. What do you tell your students and those you lead where they can find these resources within historical Protestantism? Where should they go?
MOHLER: Well the beginning point is looking at the Reformation backwards and forwards. And so going back, there’s a reason why this anniversary is really important as it was especially beginning with the 200th anniversary and the 300th. That’s where Protestants remember that what was rooted in 1517 was not the establishment of a new church. It was the belief, as Calvin said, that Christ has never been without his church, but that that church must be distinguished by several marks and by the preaching of a gospel that they defined under context of fire in terms of the solas and justification by faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone. On what authority? On the authority of Christ through Scripture alone. And yet as I said in a lecture I gave at another seminary last week and it’s quoting Calvin that the faith that justifies is faith alone; faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone. That is to say, it comes accompanied by sanctification, it comes with the fullness of the Christian faith and looking at the Reformation backwards we come to understand its continuity with classical Christianity and we would make the claim all the way back to Christ and the apostles, without apostolic or Episcopal continuity. But the resources are there; the resources that enabled the magisterial reformers to do what they did, and to set in motion what they did in 1517 are, I believe, rightly understood the adequate resources for Christians to be faithful in 2017.
DREHER: You know what’s so interesting about this conversation, these kinds of conversations, is even though I know why I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I know what I believe and how it differs from what you believe and what Catholics believe, I feel like I have so much more in common with men and women like you who stand on a firm confession of truth. You know truth is one we, I don’t want to be mushy about it. I think that’s a false ecumenism, but it’s also the case that because we believe the truth is objective I call people like us small “o” orthodox Christians. I don’t want to use the word “conservative” if that’s what we are because I don’t want to make this just a political thing, but I believe that we have so much more to offer each other, and we can learn from each other while being faithful to our denominational distinctives. We can still help each other out and we’re going to need each other because even within our own churches you know you’re going to see apostasy.
MOHLER: Well, indeed. And this is a sensitive issue for an evangelical or classical Protestant in this conversation because we believe that in the historic arguments between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church, all the way down to the anathemas of Trent and beyond and even that the great schism in terms of the division between the East and the West, which would include orthodoxy, that the gospel itself is at stake. That does not mean that we do not learn from one another and do not greatly benefit from friendships in conversation with one another, but the historic Protestant has to be always very careful to say our accountability is first and foremost to the gospel, and make that very clear. I’m in a lot of conversations with Roman Catholics and have sought deeply to understand Roman Catholicism, including studying in a Roman Catholic institution as part of my graduate work because I wanted to understand Catholic theological method in the Catholic tradition. It did not make me Catholic; it did make me learn, respectfully, how the Catholic churches has struggled with many of these issues over time and there’s ongoing conversation because we are now on the iceberg melting together, and we should not be embarrassed to be together and to be in conversation to learn from one another and I felt that way very much reading your book The Benedict Option and certainly in every conversation I’ve ever had with you.
What Al Mohler is alluding to here in his reference to the Reformation is extremely important to emphasize because he is putting his finger on the real answer but I just don’t think he went far enough. Its not just an issue of adhering to creedal statements, though they are certainly important, but of actually preaching those biblical truths with passion and conviction and calling men to the kind of radical commitment to Christ that the biblical gospel demands. It is not just an issue of right doctrine and right belief but of the application of that doctrine (the Gospel) to the heart and life of individuals so they come to actually know Christ and experience real and true salvation. It is a message that divides men but which is the power of God to salvation (Romans 1:16). Rod Dreher does not have a positive opinion of the Reformation. He states in his book that he believes it was responsible for dividing the authority of the church. But he seems to be unaware of the fact that that unity was in fact shattered 500 years earlier with the split between the East and West. The Reformation brought division but it was a necessary as I am sure most Eastern Orthodox would agree that the division that resulted from the 11th century split was a necessary division because the Church of Rome was arrogating to itself supreme authority over the church universal. A claim it still makes for itself today.
Rod Dreher does not understand what the root of the real problem is. He clearly believes that Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Evangelicals are simply different denominations within the true church and he seems to assume that we all have the same foundational gospel. But there is no unity possible between these different communions because of the gospel. Roman Catholicism has repudiated the true biblical gospel, as has Eastern Orthodoxy and much of evangelicalism as well. What defines the nature of the true church is the gospel and faithfulness to its proclamation. Christ builds His church on the foundation of the biblical gospel and the ultimate authority of the written scriptures (Mt. 16:13-19; Eph. 2:20). Where that foundational message is corrupted you do not have a true church. Rod Dreher exhorts the professing church of our day to return to the tradition of the early Church which he interprets to be liturgical worship, spiritual disciplines and asceticism. But in actuality one of the foundational principles of that tradition was the Reformation principle of sola scriptura (The documentation for this claim can be found in the article about sola scriptura and the early church found here). The authority of scripture is foundational to the true Church and it is the scriptures which reveal the truth of the gospel. The Reformation was necessary in order to bring the church back to a true biblical gospel and the experience of true salvation and the life of true righteousness that flows out of that experience. That biblical gospel is not compatible with the teaching of Roman Catholicism or of Eastern Orthodoxy or of much of present day evangelicalism. That is why Mohler makes the distinction between true reformation evangelicalism and evangelicalism as an “ism”. The answer to the corruption of the church of our day is not tot a call for men to adopt a Benedictine spirituality of liturgical worship, spiritual disciplines and asceticism. The problem cannot be solved by such superficial means because the root problem requires a radical spiritual transformation of the very nature of man and that requires the preaching of the true gospel.
The Reformation was all about the preaching of the true gospel based upon the authority of scripture alone. It was the answer to the endemic corruption of the church of the 16th century and it is the answer to the endemic corruption of the professing church of the 21st, be it the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Evangelical. Each, in its own way, is in need of hearing the true biblical gospel, and turning from its error to embrace the truth. This is the only hope for the church of the 21st century. We need to understand the full truth of what that message entails both in its doctrinal content but also in its application and to that I want to turn. All one has to do is examine what the word of God declares the gospel to be and it becomes self evident that it has been nearly universally corrupted within all the communions that profess Christ. What is needed is a new Reformation with what I would call, not the Benedict Option, but the Gospel Option. What follows is somewhat lengthy but it is necessary to get a proper context for accurately evaluating and judging the Benedict Option and the contemporary church scene and why that scene is the way it is. In the following assessment we will examine what scripture teaches about the law of God, sin, the consequences of sin, the person and work of Christ as a Savior from sin, the nature of repentance and faith, true conversion, and the results of salvation in the life of a true convert.
We need to first of all understand the importance and priority of the gospel. The apostle Paul emphasizes in no uncertain terms that this is something that is nonnegotiable. It is clearly revealed in the word of God and to alter or distort its message in any way is to place oneself under the anathema of God. Paul writes:
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ (Gal. 1:6-10).
This tells us that the gospel message has a very specific content and application which is revealed in the written scriptures in the teaching of Jesus and the epistles of the New Testament. It is that to which the church is called to proclaim, confirm and defend and which characterizes true faithfulness to Christ and is a significant aspect of what it means to truly serve Christ as Paul mentions above. It is the foundation to the ministry and life of the church. Literally everything that comprises what the scriptures define as true Christianity flows out of the true gospel. It is the means by which God reconciles men to Himself and brings them into the experience of salvation. It is the foundation to the Christian life and the reality and power of God, to true worship and prayer and service and ministry. Without this you have nothing and all the church activities and spiritual disciplines one may become engaged in will be but vain exercises devoid of true life and power. This is precisely what Jesus told the Jewish religious leaders. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, he informed them that despite all their religious commitment their worship was in vain because it was not grounded in the true gospel and true salvation (Mt. 15:8-9). Their heart was far from God in a lawless state (Mt. 23:27-28). This is why it is misguided to promote a Benedictine spirituality without first of all defining the biblical gospel.
Paul speaks of how the gospel is the means God uses to save men:
Rom. 1:16-17: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, But the righteous man shall live by faith.
1 Cor. 15:1-4: Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.
Eph. 1:13-14: In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.
Eph. 3:13-14: By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel…
Paul also speaks of how the Christian life is lived out of the initial experience of salvation of coming to know Christ:
Col. 2:6: As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord so walk in Him.
This tells us that the experience of sanctification and living the Christian life is directly related to what it means to receive Christ in personal relationship for salvation based on the message of the gospel. As we will see, a real experience of salvation will inevitably result in a genuine commitment of the believer to a walk of sanctification where he is continuously conformed by the power of God to the image of Christ and his life is characterized by obedience to the will and word of God. This is what the Orthodox typically refer to as theosis but it can only be a reality if it is grounded in a true gospel because it involves a great deal more than simply being committed to spiritual disciplines and church activities and corporate church worship. Paul makes it clear in Philippians that all true worship is grounded upon the foundation of the gospel and its application to one’s life:
Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you. Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh, although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:1-11).
So, we can see here how the scriptures emphasize the absolute priority and importance of the gospel. But what precisely is the message of the gospel? What is its doctrinal content? The term gospel means good news. It is a divine message revealing to all mankind the truth that man in sin can be reconciled to God and be made right with him and saved through Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world (John 4:42). The gospel is a message of salvation which includes deliverance from sin and its consequences, and reconciliation with God, with the ultimate purpose that through that reconciliation and deliverance men might fulfil the purpose for which they were created. Therefore the salvation that God offers in Christ must deal with these different aspects of sin which have to do with sin’s guilt before God and its eternal consequences; and its state, bondage, power and presence in the life of the individual. Deliverance from these realities of sin is generally grouped under the theological headings of regeneration, justification, sanctification and glorification. Therefore it is supremely important that we understand the nature of sin and the way of deliverance provided by God in Jesus Christ. We will examine this subject under the headings of, The Need for Salvation, God’s Provision of Salvation, The Application and Appropriation of Salvation and The Results of Salvation
I. The Need for Salvation
One of the great transcendent truths of the revelation of the word of God is the reality of the being of God and creation. There is a true and living God who exists who has revealed Himself in creation, the revelation of the Old and New Testaments, and uniquely in Jesus Christ. All that exists is a result of the sovereign creative activity of the true and living God and is sustained in existence by His omnipotence. To properly understand the message of the gospel and salvation this is where one must begin, with the truth and reality of creation. With the fact that man, as the product of being created by a personal God, is created for a purpose. That truth then leads us to the importance of the Law of God. These major truths of the reality and being of God, creation and the Law of God are foundational for understanding why men need salvation.
As the personal creation of God, man is unique, being made in the image of God (Gen. 2). Man is not the unintended by-product of an impersonal evolutionary process. He is endowed with innate dignity and value because he was brought into being by a loving God. The existence of every person is by purpose and design. Therefore, every person has a purpose. The true and living God is a God of moral character. He is holy, righteous, just, good, loving and kind. Thus, God created a moral universe governed by universal moral laws, which are summarized in the law of God, the ten commandments (Ex. 20:1-17). God’s moral law transcends all cultures and defines our purpose in life—a relationship with God. This relationship is two dimensional. The first level involves our relationship to God as a person. The law of God commands us to have no other gods beside the God revealed in the Old and New Testaments (Exodus 20). We are to have an exclusive relationship of love and devotion with him; he is to occupy first place in our hearts and lives (Deut. 6:6-7). Jesus reiterates this great truth when he taught that the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mt. 22:37. We are to worship and serve God exclusively, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve’ (Mt. 4:10). The purpose of our existence is God himself. We were made by him and for him:
For us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him…(1 Cor. 8:6).
For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him…(Col. 1:16).
We must be clear, however, that the God we are commanded to love, worship and serve is the God who has revealed himself in the Old and New Testaments. If we do not worship and serve this God, the true and living God revealed in the Scriptures, we worship in vain. We are not at liberty to redefine worship or to create a god of our own choosing. We are strictly forbidden to have any other gods but the God revealed in the Old and New Testaments. All else is idolatry and rebellion. We must worship the biblical God in the manner prescribed in his word. Jesus said, ‘God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth’ (Jn. 4:24). He referred to His Father as ‘the only true God’ (Jn. 17:3).The only source of truth by which we can understand who God is and how to please him is contained in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus warned the Jewish religious leaders that those who do not worship God in accordance with his written revelation worship him in vain:
And thus you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men’ (Mt. 15:9).
Additionally, God has made clear that acceptable worship can only be accomplished through Jesus Christ. Jesus declared: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me’ (Jn. 14:6). Any teaching about God and how to know and serve him that contradicts Scripture is therefore false and must be rejected.
The second level in our relationship with God has to do with our obedience or conformity to his will. We are commanded to obey God in our thoughts, attitudes, actions, desires, speech and motives. Deuteronomy 13:4 describes the requirements of God’s law:
You shall follow the Lord your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him (Deut. 13:4).
Accountability and Sin
We were created to have our hearts and lives centered in God. He is to be our Lord, life, security and satisfaction; the purpose for our existence; the One who rules our hearts and lives, whom we worship exclusively, love supremely, live for, obey and serve. This is what the law of God tells us is our purpose. And the word of God tells us that God holds all men accountable to his law:
Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God…(Rom. 3:19)
When Scripture instructs that God will hold men accountable it means that he demands we keep his law perfectly. Failure to obey is called sin or transgression of God’s law (1 Jn. 3:4). The sad reality is that all men are born rebels against the person and will of God. We worship other gods, love ourselves first and best, not God, and live self-directed, self-governed lives. We wantonly disobey God in thought, word, deed, desire and motive. God is holy, while we are unholy and this is true of men everywhere regardless of culture, environment, background or personality. Who can stand? The Scriptures give us an honest appraisal of the state of all men before God:
In Your sight no man living is righteous (Ps. 143:2).
What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one (Romans 3:9-12).
Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin…All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…(Rom. 3:19-20, 23).
If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us…If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us (1 Jn. 1:8,10).
All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way…(Is. 53:6).
Contrary to modern thought, the verdict of Scripture is that we are innately evil, not innately good. There are none good or righteous. We are born alienated and separated from God. Our minds are hostile towards him; we are his enemies, unrighteous, ungodly, enslaved to sin and selfishness. We are idolators, disobedient to God, and live, whether we understand or accept it, under his wrath:
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (Eph. 2:1-3).
He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him (Jn. 3:36).
All who rebel against the law of God and fail to keep it perfectly are under a curse: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them’ (Gal. 3:10). The curse is judgment and eternal death. Romans 6:23 states that ‘the wages of sin is death’ and Ezekiel 18:4 says: ‘The soul that sins shall die.’
Death does not mean annihilation but separation. It is not only a physical separation from God but also a spiritual one. This separation is threefold. There is a spiritual separation from God in this life due to sin, from one’s physical body at death and eternal separation from God in hell. When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden they came under the judgment of God. They were separated from God, their natures were corrupted and the entire universe was radically altered and is now under the authority of Satan and subject to death and decay. Tragically, all those born since have inherited this Adamic or fallen sin nature. Man is born in sin, bound by its power, separated and alienated from God, subject to physical death and apart from direct intervention by God, subject to eternal separation from him in hell.
The law of God is an inflexible, absolute standard to which all men are accountable. Where there is transgression against it, God’s holiness and righteousness demand punishment:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18).
God hates sin and must judge it. Though loving and merciful, the Scriptures make clear that God will never exercise his love and mercy in contradiction to his justice and holiness. He will not overlook sin, he must and will judge it. Jesus warns men:
But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Mt. 12:36-37).
God is serious about sin. There is a day of judgment coming in which all men will stand before him to give an account of their lives. Hebrews 9:27 tells us that: ‘It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.’ There is no such possibility of reincarnation, no annihilation. After we die we stand before God. Jesus graphically described the reality of personal accountability and judgment in this parable:
And He told them a parable, saying, The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ (Lk. 12:16-20).
It is frightening to contemplate these warnings. We must face the fact of hell and judgment. An eternal hell awaits all those who are not saved here from their sin. The word used most in Scripture to describe hell is the word fire. Scripture describes hell as a place where the fire always burns forever. John the Baptist described Jesus in his role as Judge:
His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Mt. 3:12).
The book of Revelation predicts that at the last judgment ‘if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire’ (Rev. 20:15). The description is terrifying. It is meant to terrify us. Jesus had a great deal to say about hell, all calculated to awake and warn us:
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell (Mt. 5:22).
If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell (Mt. 5:29).
Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Mt. 10:28).
So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth…So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt. 13:40-42,49-50).
But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne….Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels’…These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Mt. 25:31,41,46).
According to Jesus, hell is a place of unending torment, of weeping and gnashing of teeth, of darkness, despair, isolation, unceasing suffering and pain; it is a place void of anything good. It is an endless experience of the wrath of God. The book of Revelation describes the final day of judgment:
Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11-15).
Everyone of us is going to die and enter eternity to exist forever, either in heaven or in hell. The word of God declares that ‘it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Heb. 12:31). Scripture exhorts us to heed the warning and prepare. This is what the gospel is all about, God’s message of ‘good news’. He has provided a way of salvation through Jesus Christ that we might be delivered from sin, and prepared to stand before him in that awful day of judgment. Jesus said:
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life (Jn. 5:24) .
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I an the Father are one (Jn. 10:27-30).
God has made a way of deliverance for us in Jesus Christ. To reject this salvation is a most grevious sin and will incur a terrible judgment:
…when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed—for our testimony to you was believed (2 Thes. 1:7-10).
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people’ (Heb. 10:26-30).
We have looked at the bad news. We are all sinners, rebels against the Law of God, ungodly and unrighteous and under the wrath and judgment of God. We need salvation. And that brings us to a consideration of our second major category: God’s provision of salvation.
II. God’s Provision of Salvation
The gospel is God’s revelation of how He has provided salvation for us through his son, Jesus Christ:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Rom. 1:16).
Salvation in Christ is multi-dimensional in its application and experience. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 1:30:
But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.
It involves all that God does to deliver men from sin (its guilt, state, bondage and power), its eternal consequences and to reconcile them to Himself in Jesus Christ that they might know Him and fulfil the purpose for which they were originally created. All in all salvation involves reconciliation, regeneration, justification, forgiveness, deliverance from eternal judgment, sanctification, conversion, adoption, eternal life and eternal glorification.
Sin involves guilt, condemnation and one’s state of being before God in nature, heart and behavior. Thus, the work of salvation involves deliverance from all aspects of sin.
Jesus, the Source of Salvation
The salvation God offers is found in the person and work of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus alone is God’s answer to man’s spiritual need. Fulfilled prophecies, the miracles and his resurrection all point to Jesus as the Messiah sent from God, the savior of mankind. Jesus came to deliver us from our sin and our separation from God and from eternal judgment. Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be anointed by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the gospel and to set the prisoners free (Is. 61:1-3; Lk. 4:18). On many occasions Jesus testified that this was his purpose and calling:
The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost (Lk. 19:10).
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45).
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life (Jn. 3:16).
The Scriptures teach that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, the only means of reconciliation with God. Scripture declares that ‘there is one God and also one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’ (1 Tim. 2:3-5). Jesus declared: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me’ (Jn. 14:6). Peter proclaimed: ‘And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). There is only one way of salvation because there is only one way to deal with sin that is acceptable to God.
What exactly did Jesus Christ accomplish that qualified him to be the Savior of the world? The great need of man is for righteousness to be acceptable to God. That righteousness is found uniquely in Jesus Christ who fulfils the Law of God for man and in salvation through His death and resurrection provides both an imputed (justification) and imparted (regeneration and sanctification) righteousness.
God is holy and just and must judge sin. He is also a loving and kind and desires to forgive and save men. The salvation that God provides must meet every demand of his justice, love and righteousness. How can he forgive and accept men who have transgressed his Law, who do not possess a perfect righteousness? He must provide a righteousness that fully satisfies the demands of the Law yet allows him to offer men forgiveness and reconciliation. Since we do not possess the righteousness necessary for acceptance with God, he has provided it as a gift through his Son, Jesus Christ. This is the teaching of Paul’s epistle to the Romans:
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:21-26).
Jesus undertook the work of salvation to fulfil perfectly the law of God to vindicate the righteousness of God so that God then might be just in justifying sinners. God will not justify and forgive sinners apart from the fulfilment of the Law. How did Jesus fulfil the Law in his work of salvation?
The Work of Jesus
The Bible tells us that Jesus became a man in order to live under the Law as our substitute, to fulfil the Law of God for us:
But when the fulness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons (Gal 4:4-5).
As discussed earlier, the Law of God requires two things: a perfect righteousness for acceptance with God and death for transgression. Jesus fulfilled both. First, he experienced death to make atonement for sin. Atonement, in a biblical context, means to satisfy the justice of God by making a sacrifice for sin in order to appease his wrath. This removes the barrier separating man from God and makes possible a reconciliation between them. This truth is clearly pictured in the Old Testament where animal sacrifice for sin was the means of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. On the Day of Atonement, the sins of the entire nation were covered by the death of a substitute. However, under the Old Covenant, the substitution and death of an animal could only cover sin, it could not take sin away. The author of Hebrews made this clear when he wrote:
It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin (Heb. 10:4).
In order to completely remove sin a sacrifice of much greater efficacy than that of an animal would be necessary. For a man to be redeemed, a man must bear the penalty, precisely what God did in Jesus Christ, ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (Jn. 1:29). His sacrifice did not merely cover sin, it removed it. The author of Hebrews instructs:
Now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself (Heb. 9:26).
The Scriptures teach us that all men have transgressed the law (Rom. 3:23). We are born under a divine curse because of sin which results in eternal death but Jesus took that curse upon himself for us:
For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.’…Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’ (Gal. 3:10,13).
Jesus became a curse for us. This is the truth of substitution taught in the Old Testament. He bore our sin and took our place on the cross, suffering the punishment due us. The sin of the world was imputed to Jesus:
All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him (Is. 53:6).
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21).
He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed (1 Pet. 2:24).
As our sinless substitute, Jesus voluntarily gave himself up as an innocent victim, allowing the Father to reckon and impute to him the sin of the world. The judgment of God—death—then fell upon him to fulfil the justice of God as demanded by the Law: ‘The soul that sins shall die’ (Ezek. 18:4). A life must be given for transgression and the life given for us was that of the precious Lamb of God:
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).
Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith (Rom. 3:24-26).
In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins (1 Jn. 4:10).
The Lord Jesus Christ gave Himself for our sins (Gal. 1:3).
He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities (Is. 53:4).
Through his atoning work, Jesus satisfied the full demands of the law which requires death for transgression. His work of atonement is a forensic work meaning it is done with respect to the demands of the law of God and to satisfy those demands. This is what it means that He became a curse for us. His sacrifice was once–for–all and completely sufficient to deal with the punishment and judgment against sin. It need never be repeated and nothing can be added to it:
By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified…Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin (Heb. 10:10-14, 18).
‘It is finished’ (Jn. 19:30).
All efforts to deal with sin apart from Christ, no matter how earnest, zealous or sincere, are futile. Cleansing and forgiveness can only be found only in Jesus Christ through his once-for-all, all-sufficient atonement on the cross. This is the biblical teaching of Christ’s sacrifice that is an essential aspect of the biblical gospel. But this biblical teaching is denied and repudiated by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Note the following comment by John Meyendorff:
In the East, the cross is envisaged not so much as the punishment of the just one, which satisfies a transcendent Justice requiring a retribution for man’s sins. As Georges Florovsky rightly puts it: “the death of the cross was effective, not as a death of an Innocent One, but as the death of the incarnate Lord.” The point was not to satisfy a legal requirement, but to vanquish the frightful cosmic reality of death, which held humanity under its usurped control and pushed it into the vicious cycle of sin and corruption (John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historic Trends and Doctrinal Themes, p. 161).
Jesus not only provided an all sufficient atonement, but he also lived a perfect righteousness before God. He kept the law perfectly. He ‘committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth’ (1 Pet. 2:22). The life each of us is accountable to live before God, but cannot, Jesus lived in our place. Jesus perfectly fulfilled both requirements of the Law of God for us: perfect obedience and death for transgression. The Law has been fulfilled. When God saves, he gives the redeemed, as a gift, the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, which effects forgiveness, acceptance with God and deliverance from all judgment and condemnation. Just as our sin was imputed to Jesus and God treated him as a sinner in our place, so the righteousness of Jesus is imputed to all who come into relationship with him. This is the wonderful truth of justification which is one essential aspect of salvation where God deals with the guilt and condemnation of sin. As Paul expresses it:
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him’ (2 Cor. 5:21).
Jesus is the righteousness of God. In Him, in His life, the sinner is made the righteousness of God. The righteousness man needs to be reconciled to God is provided as a gift of grace by God apart from the works of man. As Paul indicates in Romans 4 this righteousness is imputed to sinful men apart from works because it is based upon the work of Jesus Christ alone:
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “BLESSED ARE THOSE WHOSE LAWLESS DEEDS HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN, AND WHOSE SINS HAVE BEEN COVERED. “BLESSED IS THE MAN WHOSE SIN THE LORD WILL NOT TAKE INTO ACCOUNT.”
Scripture teaches that the resurrection of Jesus is proof that God accepted his work of salvation: ‘He who was delivered up for our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification’ (Rom. 4:25). Jesus ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God as the risen Lord. All authority in heaven and earth is his. Jesus said: ‘I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades’ (Rev. 1:17-18). Our substitute and Savior, the Lamb of God has been raised from the dead and, as the living Messiah and Lord, stands ready to receive all who would be reconciled to God.
God’s great gospel message is that he has accomplished a work of salvation for man. The Bible teaches that ‘there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’ (1 Tim. 2:5). Jesus, as the one mediator between God and man, is the only means and source of salvation, God’s answer to our sin and spiritual need. And in His atoning work at the cross of Calvary Jesus Christ provides men with complete deliverance from the guilt of sin: forgiveness, reconciliation with God, redemption, peace with God and eternal life. Our sin is cancelled out and abolished and eternally removed from us. We are declared righteous, delivered eternally from the wrath and judgment of God, from death (physical, spiritual and eternal) and given the gift of eternal life.
In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross (Col. 2:11-14).
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21).
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace (Eph. 1:7).
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life (Rom. 5:6-9).
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives (Heb. 2:14-15).
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life (John 5:24).
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…(Rom. 5:1)
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).
But not only does Jesus, as our Savior, deliver us from the guilt and condemnation of our sin through his atoning work but he also delivers us from the state, bondage and power of sin in our hearts and lives as the risen living Lord as we come into personal relationship with Him. He not only imputes a perfect righteousness to men as a gift of His grace but He delivers them from the state, bondage and power of sin. Jesus is a Savior from sin itself, not just its guilt and eternal consequences. He delivers from the curse of the Law in terms of man’s guilt (justification) but also from lawlessness in man’s nature and behavior (regeneration and sanctification) and ultimately from the very presence of sin itself in the eternal state of glorification (Rom. 6:1-23).
But the question we must ask is, how is this salvation applied to the life of an individual?
III. The Application and Appropriation of Salvation: Union with Christ
The key to understanding how this salvation is applied to men’s lives is to understand that the experience of salvation flows from and is directly related to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, what Scripture calls union with Christ. Salvation is mediated by God to those who are ‘in Christ’, who know Him in a real, spiritual, experiential relationship. Scripture teaches that salvation is knowing a person—the living Lord Jesus who calls men into a relationship with himself:
‘Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’ (Mt. 11:28-29).
‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst’ (Jn. 6:35).
As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord so walk in Him (Col. 2:6).
…to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you the hope of glory (Col 1:27).
Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God (Rom. 7:4).
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection (Rom 6:1-5).
In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise (Eph 1:13).
Sinclair Ferguson makes these pertinent comments:
The benefits of the gospel are in Christ. They do exist apart from him. They are ours only in him. They cannot be abstracted from him as if we ourselves could possess them independently of him…Separation of the benefits of the gospel from Christ, who is the gospel, is also the mother of the many varieties of ‘multiple stage’ Christianity in which a person can enjoy some, but not necessarily all, of the discrete blessings. Thus one may experience an abstractable ‘second blessing’; or alternatively enjoy the blessings of salvation without obedience, having Christ as Savior but not (at least not yet) as Lord. But this, as Calvin noted, is to ‘rend asunder the Savior.’ (The Whole Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016, pp. 46-47, 52-53).
To know salvation means that a person must become spiritually united to Christ in a real, personal relationship with the result that a person comes into an experiential knowledge of God and Jesus. As Jesus states in John 17:3: ‘This is life eternal that men may know Thee the only true God and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.’
This same truth is restated by the apostle John: ‘But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name’ (Jn. 1:12). So, what does it mean to ‘receive him’? In order to receive Jesus and experience salvation two responses are required and commanded by God: repentance and faith. Note these words of Jesus:
Now He said to them, ‘These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things’ (Lk. 24:44-48).
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life (Jn. 3:16).
I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Lk. 13:3).
The apostle Paul summarized the message he was commissioned to proclaim in these words:
…how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:20-21).
Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead (Acts 17:30-31).
The Scriptures are clear on this. If a man or woman is to experience the salvation God offers they must come to Christ in repentance and faith. Salvation is by Christ alone and not by a Church or sacraments or human works.
Repentance and Faith
What then does it mean to repent and believe? Faith means receiving Jesus as one’s personal Savior and Lord on the basis of the revelation of the word of God and the promises it holds forth with respect to salvation. The object of faith is not doctrine or a particular aspect of the work of Christ, such as the atonement, but the person of Christ himself. Repentance means turning from all that is contrary to him as such and therefore it entails turning from legalism and lawlessness or sin. A man must first of all turn from all works of any kind (ascetic, religious, social or moral) as a means of meriting acceptance with God (legalism / self-righteousness) (Phil 3:3-10). Secondly, he must turn from all sin or lawlessness which involves idolatry and a rebellious heart and life and turn to Jesus alone for salvation in a commitment of submission, love and trust, purposing to live for him and his will as his follower (Luke:923-26; 14:26-33). So, there are two fundamental conditions necessary for a person to be able to turn to Christ for salvation. The first is turning from all self righteousness to trust Jesus alone and His righteousness for justification and secondly, to turn from sin and lawlessness, from antinomianism, to submit to Christ as Lord to become his disciple and follower. Let us look at this in more detail.
Legalism of Self-Righteousness
To repent towards God involves turning from the religion of human works. God has provided salvation in Jesus Christ. There is no other God-ordained, God-provided salvation available to us. We must accept the salvation that God offers, in the manner he has prescribed, and turn from all other means of attempting to make ourselves acceptable to him. We must turn in faith to Christ alone as Savior, rejecting any reliance on or faith in works of any kind (ascetic, moral, religious or social) as a basis for salvation. We must trust in Christ and his sacrifice and righteousness alone for salvation. His death on the cross dealt with the guilt and punishment due our sin and his righteousness alone justifies us and makes possible forgiveness and acceptance before God. God has made it clear that salvation cannot be merited by human works. It was merited by Jesus Christ and must be received as a gift on the basis of the grace and mercy of God:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast (Eph. 2:8-9).
He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).
For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law (Rom 3:28).
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness…(Rom. 4:1-5).
The apostle Paul described what this involved in his own life:
If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith (Phil. 3:5-9).
If ever there was a man who, from a human perspective, could have stood before God because of what he was and had done, it was Paul. He lists his achievements: his heredity, his position in society, and his zealous works: ‘Circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless’ (Phil. 3:5‑6).
Before he was converted Paul had a very high opinion of himself. From a human perspective, no one could match Paul for zeal, morality, purity of heredity or religious observance. Yet he tells us what he thought of those things when he came to know Jesus Christ:
‘But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith’ (Phil. 3:7‑9).
God brought Paul to the place where he realized that all his achievements and attempts at righteousness for acceptance with God were worthless. He had to turn from his good works and his high estimate of himself as a means of meriting the grace and favor of God and come to the Lord Jesus with humility and empty hands, casting himself on God’s mercy to receive salvation. He could not merit salvation; it had been accomplished for him by Someone else. He abandoned any attempt to save himself, and trusted completely in Jesus Christ. He turned from self–righteousness to the Savior, and received the perfect righteousness of Jesus as a gift. And he makes it clear that unless he repudiated all trust in works he could not know Christ or salvation. He says he counted all things loss in order that he might know Christ and be found in Him. He could not know Him and be found in Him unless he repudiated legalism or works righteousness.
Paul teaches that this truth must be accepted by all men. He expresses grief over the spiritual state of his own people, the Jews, who, like himself, sought to merit salvation by works:
What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, ‘BEHOLD, I LAY IN ZION A STONE OF STUMBLING AND A ROCK OF OFFENSE, AND HE WHO BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.’ Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom 9:30-10:4).
Justification is a work of God in salvation that is grounded in the atonement of Christ for sin. We are justified by His blood and perfect life (Rom. 5:9). The reference to Christ’s blood is a reference to His death and atoning sacrifice for sin which is a once-for-all death and sacrifice. It is a declaration of righteousness based on the imputed righteousness of Christ who fulfilled the Law of God for sinful men as man’s substitute. God gives those who come to Christ in faith alone the gift of righteousness that justifies them for all eternity. It involves the imputation of a perfect and complete righteousness since we stand in the life of Christ, complete forgiveness of sin and deliverance from all condemnation and eternal judgment. As we have seen God also sanctifies men and women but it is important that we also see that He justifies them in Christ which is a separate and completed work of salvation and which is not merited or earned in any way by works. It is completely apart from works because it is dependent on the work and grace and righteousness of Christ alone.
True biblical salvation cannot be earned. It cannot be merited. It must be received as a gift from God based solely upon his mercy and grace: ‘To the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness’ (Rom. 4:5). No amount of works such as fasting, celibacy or good deeds for others, no amount of praying, or social or philanthropic activity, religious observance or moral living can gain forgiveness from and acceptance with God. Men are sinners. The only payment God will accept for sin is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. God is holy and demands perfect righteousness. The only righteousness he will accept is that of Jesus Christ. And therefore the sinner comes to Christ in total poverty of spirit, with a sense of complete spiritual bankruptcy, in the understanding that he is devoid of any righteousness and utterly helpless to rectify the situation and save himself. And so he casts himself in his helplessness on Christ alone on the basis of the promises of his word. But Jesus not only delivers from the guilt and condemnation of sin and justifies sinners for all eternity. He also delivers from the state, nature, bondage and power of sin and regenerates and sanctifies the sinner. And therefore salvation in Christ demands repentance from sin—what Paul calls ‘repentance towards God’ (Acts 20:21).
Sin / Lawlessness
To repent towards God not only involves turning from all works of self-righteousness but also from lawlessness. Repentance is directly related to sin which is defined by the Apostle John as lawlessness (1 John 3:4). It is rebellion against the Law of God. And therefore in order to know true salvation the sinner must turn from his or her rebellion against the Law which is rebellion against God. One must repent towards God. Jesus says that in order to know salvation one must ‘turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God in order to receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me’ (Acts 26:18). To repent towards God means that we must turn from lawlessness which means turning from idolatry and a sinful heart and behavior (rebellion).
What is idolatry? God has revealed himself in the Scriptures and in Jesus Christ. He alone is God, what the Scriptures call ‘the true and living God’, and we are commanded to have no other gods before him. He alone is to be worshiped and served. To turn from idolatry then is to turn from all religious systems and philosophies and ways of living which are contrary to what God has revealed in his word and through his Son. It is to turn from all that displaces God from being God in one’s heart and life, from all false gods and the materialism of this world and living for this world. The apostle Paul, in preaching the gospel of Christ to the Thessalonians, testified that they ‘turned to God from idols to serve the true and living God’ (1 Thes. 1:9). There is only one true and living God in the universe, the God revealed through creation and the Bible in the Old and New Testaments:
I am the LORD and there is no other; besides Me there is no god (Is. 45:5).
There is none like You, O LORD; You are great, and great is Your name in might. Who would not fear You, O King of the nations? Indeed it is Your due! For among all the wise men of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is none like You…But the LORD is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King (Jer. 10:6-7, 10).
The One who is LORD, Who is the true and living God is the God of Israel, the God whose name to all generations is Yahweh (Ex. 3:15). He is the creator of the universe and He has revealed Himself to be a trinitarian being, consisting of three persons in one God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—each one co-equal and co-eternal with the other. The uniqueness of Jesus Christ is that He is God and man. In Christ, the true and living God became man to be a Savior for men—the unique mediator between God and man. The Old Testament predicted that the Messiah would be the Mighty God (Is. 9:6) and the New Testament reveals Jesus to be the Creator of the Universe (Col. 1:16; Jn. 1:1-3; Heb. 1:1-3), refers to Him as Yahweh of the Old Testament (Heb. 1:10), and who is to be worshiped (Heb. 1:6).
He is to be worshiped as prescribed in the Scriptures. We cannot know, worship or serve God acceptably except through Jesus Christ and the experience of salvation that He brings through the gospel. He said, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me’ (Jn. 14:6). That makes every other way false. Philosophically, this would apply to all man-centered belief systems apart from Christianity such as the New Age movement, atheism and secular humanism. This claim of Jesus is extraordinary and exclusive. Many, because of that, claim it is also arrogant. But it is simply an issue of truth. The true and living God has revealed himself through Jesus Christ and the Bible. Obviously, then, all other so called gods and religious and philosophical systems which contradict biblical revelation are false. The question is not, What do I think or how do I feel about this, but, Is it true? Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God as proven by fulfilled prophecy, and he has made this claim for himself.
We were created to worship God – the true and living God. But we not only worship God with our lips, but with our life, and thus repentance also involves turning from sin.
As we have observed, the Law of God tells us that we were created for an exclusive relationship with God. We were created to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to obey his will. We have rebelled against that purpose. This is the essence of the meaning of sin. It is transgression of the Law of God or what scripture calls lawlessness (1 Jn. 3:4). To repent towards God means that I recognize that I am a rebel and sinner against God and his will as revealed in his Law for ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:23). I purpose to turn from my rebellion, from lawlessness, and give God his rightful place in my heart and life and submit my life to Him as Lord to follow Him in obedience to His will in all my behavior. A saved life is a sanctified life. This is an essential aspect of the work of the grace of God in salvation. He not only delivers from the guilt of sin in Christ but from ungodliness and unrighteousness:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds (Titus 2:11-14).
To define grace in such a way that it justifies an ungodly and unrighteous heart and life on the basis of the need to repudiate all legalism is to pervert the biblical meaning of grace and ‘turn the grace of our God into licentiousness’ (Jude 4). Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, but the faith that saves is never devoid of works because it unites a person to Christ who then bears the fruit of works in and through his life. Salvation is not by works but it will always, without fail, produce a life of holiness in those who are truly saved:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?…faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself…But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? (Js. 2:14, 17, 20).
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience (Eph. 5:5-6).
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God Gal. 5:19-21)
These scriptures make it clear that while a man is saved apart from works, that does not negate the necessity of repentance from sin and commitment to obedience to the Law of God. In these scriptures Paul is emphatic in saying that those whose lives are characterized by unrighteousness, by which he means rebellion against the law of God, will not inherit the kingdom of God. He gives a partial listing of sins which characterize what he means by unrighteousness which include immorality, adultery and homosexuality which obviously would also include the subject of same-sex marriage. These are huge issues for our day. Men, for the most part in our day, have completely rejected the notion of the sinfulness of these behaviors. And it is not uncommon to see men and women in the church whose lives are characterized by these behaviors. But the truth of God does not change to suit the opinions of men. Immorality and adultery and homosexuality (and therefore same-sex marriage) are wrong and sinful because God says they are. And the gospel proclaims this truth to men and calls them to repentance. And the word of God is warning us that if we profess Christ and live in these particular sins, that we have never repented before God and are unrighteousness and are not saved even though we may be identified with the professing Church.
So to turn to God for salvation involves two major components. There is, firstly, the turning to Him in a commitment of personal relationship. Then, secondly, a turning to Him in a commitment to His will in how one lives that affects one’s thoughts, attitudes, desires, motives, speech and actions. To receive God’s salvation and forgiveness of sins, we must, in the words of Jesus, ‘turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God’ (Acts 26:18). Jesus made this very clear when he spoke to the crowds about salvation what it meant to enter into a relationship with him:
And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul?’ (Mk. 8:34-37).
Jesus taught that if we come to him for salvation certain conditions must be met. We must deny self, take up a cross and commit our lives to him to be his follower. No one can be a true follower of Christ who will not or has not denied self and taken up a cross. To deny self is to repudiate an attitude and lifestyle of independence from God—to turn from living for oneself, from self-will. Denying self is coupled with taking up a cross. A cross meant execution. Jesus used this metaphor to describe the kind of commitment it takes to come into a relationship with him, a commitment to self-denial, self-sacrifice, and death to self for his sake. I must repent from the heart disposition of self-rule and self-will and living for selfish ambitions and interests and submit myself to Christ as Lord and Master to live for him, his interests and will. And part of what it means to live for His sake and His will He says here is to live for the gospel. It is to be identified with his gospel (Mark 8:35). To be a follower of Jesus is to be his disciple. Self no longer rules or dominates the center of the life, Jesus Christ does. Jesus explains why this is so important. To refuse these conditions is to ‘lose’ your life: ‘For whoever will save his life will lose it…’ (Mk. 8:35). The word ‘lose’ means to perish; to die eternally and suffer eternal judgment. Jesus reemphasizes this in the verses which immediately follow when he adds, ‘For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?’ (Mk. 8:36-37). As we have seen the root and essence of sin is self. Jesus is therefore calling for repentance from sin, repentance from self—self-will and self-rule—followed by submission to him as Lord. This is reiterated by Jesus in a different setting:
If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple…So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions (Luke 14:26-33).
Jesus clearly states the conditions for discipleship. Unless these conditions are met one cannot be his disciple and enter a relationship with him. Jesus begins with our closest family ties and love relationships. In using the word hate he is not promoting literal hatred of our families, but preeminent love for him. All other loves must be subordinate to our love for him. This is further amplified in another passage where Jesus says, ‘He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me’ (Mt. 10:37). We are to love him above all others and above our possessions. This includes love for self. Jesus must be our first love. Nothing and nobody is to displace him in our hearts. All must be forsaken and Jesus given the central place in our affections and lives. Evangelical theologian William Hendriksen makes these comments on the above passage:
He tells the people that devotion to Himself must be so wholehearted that even attachment to parents and to other members of one’s family must not be allowed to stand in the way. Clearly the meaning of the word hate in the Lucan passage is to love less. In all things Christ must always have the pre–eminence (Col 1:18).That the word hate in Luke 14:26 cannot have the meaning which we generally attach to it is clear also from the fact that Jesus tells us to love even our enemies (Matt 5:44). What the Savior demands in Luke 14:26 and other passages is complete devotion, the type of loyalty that is so true and unswerving that every other attachment, even to one’s own life must be subjected to it. If a person is unwilling to tender that unconditional devotion, then says Jesus, ‘he cannot be My disciple’ (William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), pp. 734-735).
And then Jesus speaks of turning from materialism in the heart and the idolatry of the world:
So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions (Luke 14:33).
This is, in principle, precisely what Jesus told the rich young ruler. To inherit eternal life he had to forsake the idol of his heart—his money—and follow Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns us that one cannot serve God and mammon, by which he means the material world (Mt. 6:19-24). He does not mean we give up all possessions and live in poverty. It means that in the heart the world and all that it represents in terms of its materialism, values, what it esteems and lives for, the principles that govern its living, has been repudiated and forsaken. This is clear from the exhortation John gives in his first epistle:
Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever (1 Jn. 2:15-17).
So these passages in Luke 9:23-26 and Luke 14:26-33 define what it means to be a follower of Christ. In John 10:27-28 Jesus sums up what it means to be one of His sheep and delivered from the terrible reality of perishing eternally:
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
Jesus states that those who are His sheep and who receive eternal life and who will never perish are those who follow Him. Those who do not follow Him are not His sheep, they do not have eternal life, and they will perish. The Greek word that is translated by the word follow is the same word that Jesus uses in Mark 8:34 where He calls men to salvation and says that if they don’t deny self, take up their cross and follow Him that they will perish.
Apart from this kind of radical commitment there cannot be a real relationship with him and, consequently, no true salvation. Why? Because apart from this kind of commitment there is no genuine repentance from sin and idolatry. To love any person or thing more than God is idolatry. We cannot serve two masters. So the question is, What comes first in my life? Whom do I love preeminently and who or what am I living for? Jesus commands us to dethrone our idols and enthrone him as the first love and Lord of our lives to become His disciple and bondslave because He is God. His demand originates with the Law of God, that we were created to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to have no other gods before him. And He uses the metaphor of salt to describe those who make this commitment to be his disciple or follower and he attaches a warning to the metaphor. After laying out the conditions for being his disciple and the need to count the cost he says:
Therefore, salt is good; but if even salt has become tasteless, with what will it be seasoned? It is useless either for the soil or for the manure pile; it is thrown out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear (Lk. 14:34-35).
In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 Jesus states that those who are truly in the kingdom of God are those whose character is defined by the beatitudes. He says that they will then be salt and light in this world. Here in Luke 14 Jesus is defining the relationship with himself that is foundational to that character. It those alone who have made this radical heart commitment to him to be his follower whose inner character is transformed into that of the beatitudes. Then Jesus warns that salt can become tasteless and ultimately useless. The application is that a mere religious Christianity with all its religious activities devoid of the heart commitment of a follower is not true salt. It is tasteless and useless. Christian religiosity divorced from a total forsaking of self, sin and the world joined with a real commitment to Christ as Lord and first love is lifeless and powerless. It is not true Christianity.
When we repent of sin and are brought into a proper relationship with God through a relationship with Jesus Christ, as He defines the conditions for that relationship, our lives are not only eternally justified but also sanctified, set apart, and we are enabled by the indwelling Spirit and power of God to fulfil the purpose for which we were originally created. We are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. In repentance from sin the Lord Jesus Christ delivers us from a state of lawlessness, of the bondage and power of sin in our nature and behavior and we become conformed to the Law of God in heart and behavior, the slaves of righteousness as Paul puts it in Romans 6:17-18:
But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.
This indicates that a radical change occurs in the heart and life of the individual who is truly converted and saved. And Paul makes it clear that this transformation of deliverance from sin is a supernatural work of God that occurs when one becomes spiritually united to Jesus Christ:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin (Rom. 6:1-7).
When Paul speaks here about being baptized into Christ he is not referring to water baptism but to that which water baptism represents, spiritual union with Christ, which occurs as a response to the gospel. This is the truth he emphasizes in several scriptures where he speaks of being baptized into Christ and the body, of being sealed in Him as a result of hearing and responding in faith to the gospel and of being joined to Him:
For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit (1 Cor. 12:12-13).
In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise (Eph 1:13).
Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God (Rom. 7:4).
Salvation is the fruit of union with Christ as a person responds to the gospel in repentance and faith. And the nature of the relationship is defined by scripture by two profoundly significant words—disciple and bondslave. In Romans 7:4 Paul states that those joined to Christ will bear spiritual fruit. And fruit comes from the relationship where a person has become a disciple and bondslave of Jesus Christ:
Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you…My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples (Jn. 15:4-5, 8).
But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your fruit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life (Rom. 6:22).
The word enslaved in Romans 6:22 is a form of the Greek word, doulos, which means a bondslave. It signifies a life wholly submitted to Christ as Lord and master and only that person knows deliverance from sin, the fruit of sanctification and eternal life. This is what it means to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ because He Himself is a doulos of God in His essential nature as a man (Phil 2:7). And as Jesus explains in John 15 only a disciple can abide in Him and bear fruit for God of a sanctified holy life. Those who bear fruit prove they are Christ’s disciples. Thus the true commitment to Christ which defines the relationship is defined by the two words, disciple and bondslave (doulos). Only those who have made this kind of commitment are united to Christ and are ‘in Him’. Anything less than this is a mere profession without life because true salvation begins with a relationship with Christ where the life and heart are set apart to Christ in a commitment of supreme love and submission and trust which then leads to a process of sanctification in one’s life in a walk of submission to the will of God in one’s behavior. Paul gives a description of the true Christian in Ephesians where in reference to slaves he describes them as being ‘slaves of Christ who do the will of God from the heart’ (Eph. 6:6). One can only do the will of God from the heart if the heart has been sanctified. It is not enough to affirm as a theological profession that Jesus is God and Lord. One must also actually submit to him as Lord by becoming his doulos or bondservant and then live a life of submission to the will of God. G. Kittel’s authoritative Theological Dictionary of the New Testament makes the following comments with respect to the word doulos:
All the words in this group serve either to describe the status of a slave or an attitude corresponding to that of a slave . . . Where there is a [doulos slavery] human autonomy is set aside and an alien will takes precedence of one’s own. . . The doulos has no right of personal choice. . . The word group serves to describe a relation of absolute dependence in which the total commitment of the doulos on the one side corresponds to the total claim of the kurios [lord] on the other . . . Alongside the will and commission of the kurios there is no place for one’s own will or initiative. . . Prominent in the theological use of the word group in the N[ew] T[estament] is the idea that Christians belong to Jesus as His douloi [slaves], and that their lives are thus offered to Him as the risen and exalted Lord.
The preaching of this kind of commitment is an essential aspect of the gospel because it is an essential aspect of the application of the truth of repentance and the teaching of Jesus on what it means to be delivered from sin and to become sanctified. The process of sanctification can only occur where there is first of all the definitive setting apart of the life to Christ as Lord and Master. The fruit of sanctification or obedience flows out of a heart that becomes ‘enslaved’ to God (Rom. 6:22), that is conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:5-6). There is a turning from self-rule and self-will to submit one’s life wholly to Christ as Lord and Master. This is the application to the heart of one who professes Christ to be Lord so that there is a real submission of the heart and life. It embodies the truth of what Jesus described as true conversion where men ‘turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me’ (Acts 26:18). This turning is a condition of receiving forgiveness and is the heart of what it means to have a sanctified life.
This teaching and call of Jesus to a discipleship/slave commitment for salvation is completely absent from the theology of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Salvation is not personal commitment to Christ but commitment to the Church, its dogmas, the sacraments and good works. And the vast majority within Evangelicalism have relegated this teaching to an optional second step in one’s Christian experience that is unrelated to the issue of salvation. While evangelicalism repudiates the error of legalism and focuses upon the truth of the atonement and justification by faith alone in Christ alone (all of which is true as far as it goes) it has repudiated the clear teaching of Jesus on what a saving commitment to Him fully entails. In the teaching of much the evangelical church one can be a christian and saved but not be a disciple. But to deny this teaching is to teach men that they can profess Christ and continue living with a lawless heart. This is antinomianism or lawlessness which Jesus teaches will condemn a man for all eternity:
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness (Mt. 7:21-24).
The denial of the necessity of turning from lawlessness with the commitment to Christ to be his follower for salvation is a repudiation of what the word of God teaches is an essential aspect of the gospel. It is also a repudiation of the teaching of the Reformation which the evangelical church claims as its heritage. To focus solely on the truth of justification and the atonement and the need to repudiate all self-righteousness and works and to trust in Christ alone by faith alone to the exclusion of also emphasizing the need to obey his call to a discipleship commitment is to preach half truth and half truth is error. As J.I. Packer comments:
In the last analysis there is only one method of evangelism, namely the faithful explanation and application of the gospel message…We have to ask: is the way we present the gospel calculated to convey to people the application of the gospel and not just part of it, but the whole of it—the summons to see and know oneself as God sees and knows one, that is as a sinful creature and to face the breadth and depth of the need into which a wrong relationship with God has brought one, and to face too the cost and consequences of turning to receive Christ as Savior and Lord? Or is it likely to be deficient here and to gloss over some of this, and to give an inadequate distorted impression of what the gospel requires?…Will it leave people supposing that all they have to do is to trust Christ as sin–bearer not realizing that they must also deny themselves and enthrone Him as their Lord (the error which we might call only–believisim)? (Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1961), pp. 71-73, 88-89)..
It is precisely because this kind of preaching and teaching is absent from Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and mainstream Evangelicalism that explains why the Church is so superficial and corrupt in this present day. We need to heed these profound words of John Calvin which embody the essence of the gospel of the Reformation and point us to the biblical answer for the Dark Age bemoaned by Rod Dreher:
Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.11…That thus engrafted into him (cf. Rom. 11:19) we are already, in a manner, partakers of eternal life, having entered in the Kingdom of God through hope12…I confess that we are deprived of this utterly incomparable good until Christ is made ours. Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are grafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), Volume XIX, Book III, Ch. XI.10, pp. 736-737).
Why, then, are we justified by faith? Because by faith we grasp Christ’s righteousness, by which alone we are reconciled to God. Yet you could not grasp this without at the same time grasping sanctification also. For he ‘is given unto us for righteousness, wisdom, sanctification, and redemption’ (1 Cor 1:30). Therefore Christ justifies no one whom he does not at the same time sanctify. These benefits are joined together by an everlasting and indissoluble bond, so that those whom he illumines by his wisdom, he redeems; those whom he redeems, he justifies; those whom he justifies, he sanctifies. But, since the question concerns only righteousness and sanctification, let us dwell upon these. Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker of his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces (1 Cor. 1:13). Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness (Ibid., p. 798).
These comments by evangelical theologian James Montgomery Boice underscore Calvin’s comments and their importance for our own day as they deal with the current superficiality and corruption of the church. As an evangelical he is warning the church of a serious departure from the teaching of Jesus with terrible consequences for one’s life here and for eternity. He has the courage to expose error and to call his own communion to account:
There is a fatal defect in the life of Christ’s church in the twentieth century: a lack of true discipleship. Discipleship means forsaking everything to follow Christ. But for many of today’s supposed Christians—perhaps the majority—it is the case that while there is much talk about Christ and even much furious activity, there is actually very little following of Christ Himself. And that means in some circles there is very little genuine Christianity. Many who fervently call Him ‘Lord, Lord’ are not Christians (Matthew 7:21)…There are several reasons that the situation I have described is common in today’s church. The first is a defective theology that has crept over us like a deadening fog. This theology separates faith from discipleship and grace from obedience. It teaches that Jesus can be received as one’s Savior without being received as one’s Lord…Discipleship in not a supposed second step in Christianity, as if one first became a believer in Jesus and then, if he chooses, a disciple. From the beginning, discipleship is involved in what it means to be a Christian….Is ‘faith’ minus commitment a true biblical faith?…If faith without works is dead—how much truer is it that faith without commitment is dead…True faith involves these elements: knowledge…heart response…and commitment, without which ‘faith’ is no different from the assent of the demons who ‘believe…and shudder’ (James 2:19).
It is not only a false theology that has encouraged this fatal lack of discipleship. The error is also due to the absence of what the older devotional writers called a ‘self–examined life.’ Most Westerners live in a tragically mindless environment. Life is too fast, and our contact with other persons too impersonal for any real thought or reflection. Even in the church we are far more often encouraged to join this committee, back this project, or serve on this board than we are counseled to examine our relationship to God and His Son Jesus Christ. So long as we are performing for the church, few question whether our profession is genuine or spurious. But sermons should suggest that members of a church may not actually be saved, although they are members. Teachers should stress that a personal, self-denying, costly, and persistent following of Christ is necessary if a person is to be acknowledged by Jesus in the last day…In the absence of this teaching millions drift on, assuming that because they have made a verbal acknowledgment of Christ ten, twenty, or even thirty years ago and have done nothing terribly bad since, they are Christians, when actually they may be far from Christ, devoid of grace, and in danger of perishing forever (emphasis mine) ( James Montgomery Boice, Christ’s Call to Discipleship (Chicago: Moody, 1986), pp. 13, 14, 16, 21, 15-16).
D.A. Carson adds these sober thoughts:
Nothing could be more calamitous than to meditate long and hard on Matthew 5:1-7:12 and then to resolve to improve a little. The discipleship which Jesus requires is absolute, radical in the (etymological) sense that it gets to the root of human conduct and to the root of relationships between God and men. A person either enters the kingdom or he does not. He walks the road that leads to life, or he walks the road that leads to destruction. There is no third alternative. Nothing, nothing at all, could have more crucial significance than following Jesus. Even if today this is far from being a universally admitted truth, yet one day all men without exception shall confess it, some to their everlasting grief.
Jesus therefore concludes the Sermon on the Mount with a number of paired alternatives. He speaks of two paths (7:130, two trees (7:15-20), two claims (7:21-23), two houses (7:24-27). By these pairs he insists that there are two ways, and only two. These final verses of the Sermon on the Mount demand decision and commitment of the type that beseeches God for mercy and pardon. Such discipleship is characterized by that deep repentance which hungers for nothing more than conformity to God’s will. But because there are only two ways, simple failure to make such deep commitment is really a commitment not to do so. Jesus’ way demands repentance, trust, and obedience. Therefore refusal, stemming as it must from an unrepentant arrogance, unbelief, and/or disobedience—in short, self-centeredness instead of God-centeredness—can only be construed as rebellion.
Two ways, and only two. The Sermon on the Mount does not end with lofty thoughts of human goodness, sprinkled liberally with naive hope about the inevitability of human progress. It offers two ways, and only two. The one ends in life (7:14), good fruit (7:17), entrance into the kingdom of heaven (7:21), stability (7:25); the other ends in destruction (7:13), bad fruit and fire (7:19), exclusion from the kingdom along with other evildoers (7:23), ruination (7:27). Solemn thoughts, these; a man will ignore the weight of these blessings and curses only at his own eternal peril.
It is true, of course, that no man enters the kingdom because of his obedience; but it is equally true that no man enters the kingdom who is not obedient. It is true that men are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ; But it is equally that God’s grace in a man s life inevitably results in obedience. Any other view of grace cheapens grace, and turns it into something unrecognizable. Cheap grace preaches forgiveness without repentance, church membership without rigorous church discipline, discipleship without obedience, blessing without persecution, joy without righteousness, results without obedience. In the entire history of the church, has there ever be another generation with so many nominal Christians and so few real (i.e., obedient) ones? And where nominal Christianity is compounded by spectacular profession, it is especially likely to manufacture its own false assurance (D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: An Exposition of Matthew 5-10 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), pp. 129-130, 139-140).
And finally. evangelical theologian A.A. Hodge remarks on the nature of the radical commitment of those who are genuine Christians:
The Scriptures make it plain that the condition of its effectual application (redemption) is an act of faith, involving real spiritual repentance and the turning from sin and the acceptance and self appropriation of Christ and of His redemption as the only remedy…From within, the God–man reigns supreme in every Christian heart. It is impossible to accept Christ as our Sacrifice and Priest without at the same time cordially accepting him as our Prophet, absolutely submitting our understanding to his teaching, and accepting him as our King, submitting implicitly our hearts and wills and lives to his sovereign control. Paul delights to call himself the doulos, purchased servant, of Jesus Christ. Every Christian spontaneously calls him our Lord Jesus. His will is our law, his love our motive, his glory our end. To obey his will, to work in his service, to fight his battles, to triumph in his victories, is our whole life and joy (A.A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology (Edinburgh: Banner, 1976), pp. 120, 233).
Another essential aspect of what it means to be sanctified in Christ is not only that a person’s heart and life are set apart to Christ but that a man or woman receives a new heart and nature. They are regenerated. All men are born with sin natures and have corrupt hearts and that is why Jesus taught that to enter the kingdom of God we must be ‘born again’, we must receive a new nature:
Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. ‘Do not be amazed that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit’ (John 3:3-8).
A new nature can only be found through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Part of the work of salvation that God produces in the lives of those who commit their lives to Jesus Christ is the miracle of the new birth. They receive a new heart and life and become the children of God:
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:12-13).
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:17-18).
This new life is life in Christ in which a sinner is raised from the dead spiritually and is made alive to God and then walks in newness of life by the power of the indwelling Christ by his Spirit (Rom. 6:1-23). It is called the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus:
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live (Rom. 8:1-13).
Adoption and Glorification
And then finally, those who come into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ are adopted into the family of God and made the children of God. The living God becomes the Father of the one who follows Jesus:
The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him (Rom. 8:16-17).
As the above verse indicates, those who are ‘in Christ’ are not only the children of God but also those who are assured of the blessing of an eternal inheritance which includes eternal glory and glorification with Christ.. All of this is part of what it means to enter into and possess eternal life. We have the hope of eternal glory with Christ. The believer will be resurrected after physical death into the eternal state of glory with Jesus Christ to receive a glorified body which is completely free from every vestige of sin. This is aligned with God’s purpose in Jesus Christ to completely transform the universe and deliver it from all corruption.
See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure (1 John 3:1-3).
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself (Philippians 3:19-20).
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:10–13).
One of the glorious truths of the gospel and salvation is the fact that the work God accomplishes in the life of those who truly come to Christ is an eternal work which gives eternal security to the believer. This is the assurance that real salvation can never be lost. Once a man or woman is saved they can never lose that standing. This salvation is based on an eternal covenant and eternal redemption which results in the possession of eternal life and an eternal inheritance in glory:
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:1, 33-39).
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand (John 10:27-29).
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life (John 5:24)
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16)
Summary of the Results of Salvation
It is clear from the above exposition of Scripture that when God saves a person he completely reverses the state and effects of the sin in which that person existed. He saves us from sin’s guilt, power, dominion, consequences and eventual presence; he forgives our sin, cleanses us of defilement, imputes to us the perfect righteousness of Jesus and brings us into a reconciled relationship with himself. He delivers us from eternal judgment and hell, gives us the gift of eternal life, brings us into his kingdom and delivers us from the fear of death. He brings us into a personal love relationship with himself and becomes a father and shepherd to us. He changes our hearts and indwells us by his Spirit; gives us new life and empowers us to walk in obedience to his will. One day he will resurrect us and give us a new body which will never decay.
True righteousness and spirituality is not as a first priority about spiritual disciplines. Nor are they related to asceticism and sacraments. It is about a radical heart commitment of submission to and love for Christ and obedience to his will and word. What we learn from the Pharisees and the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament epistles is that it is possible to profess Christ, have an intellectual assent to the doctrines of Christianity, be actively involved as a member of the church, and be committed to spiritual disciplines and spiritual activities and yet not know him and not live in real obedience to his will and word. The first and most important principle is knowing Christ, being in union with him, being ‘in Him’. And that will then invariably lead to a life of commitment to spiritual disciplines and real heart and life obedience in submission to his will as revealed in his word. 2 Corinthians 5:17 states that ‘if any man is in Christ he is a new creation.’ This again is emphasizing the truth that spiritual reality and life and power and true righteousness all flows out of a relationship with Christ. Then in Ephesians 1:13 Paul tells us how a man or woman comes to be ‘in Christ’:
In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise.
Coming into a spiritual relationship with Christ is directly related to the biblical gospel. Paul says this takes place when one hears, understands and fully embraces its truth for it all points to Christ. But the message of the gospel warns against the errors of legalism and antinomianism. In Philippians 3 Paul states in order to know Christ and be found ‘in Him’ he had to turn from all legalism. To not do so would mean he could not know Christ. Similarly Jesus states that apart from repentance from antinomianism and the commitment to Him to be His disciple one cannot know Him, meaning be ‘in Him.’ To adhere to legalism and antinomianism is to deny the gospel and the means of salvation for one cannot know Christ. Therefore all religious activity that is rooted in legalism or antinomianism is a parody of real Christianity. New life in Christ is grounded upon a personal commitment to the gospel that has repudiated all legalism and antinomianism to trust in Christ alone and to submit to Him as Lord and first love, which then issues in a life of obedience to the will of God as revealed in his word.
We need to also understand that a vital element of such obedience entails a commitment to Christ’s gospel as a ministry and way of life. Jesus tells us that in coming to him for salvation that we must lose our lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel (Mark 8:35).This means that a truly spiritual life will be characterized by a commitment to the biblical gospel and obedience to Christ to publicly proclaim it. This is an essential aspect of what it means to follow him and serve him. This is a commitment that applies to us as individuals as well as to the public ministry of the church. This is part and parcel of the sanctification and obedience that every follower of Christ is called to. There is first of all the personal embracing of the gospel for salvation which then leads to the personal commitment to stand for the truth of that gospel in its doctrinal content and proclamation in one’s daily life. The follower of Christ is supremely committed to personal obedience to the word of God in every aspect of behavior as well as obedience to Christ’s command to publicly declare the gospel. The great mandate of Christ to the church is the Great Commission as found in Matthew 28 and Luke 24, which is concerned about two primary things—the preaching of the gospel to make disciples and the preaching of the word of God to teach disciples of Christ a walk of obedience:
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Mt. 28:18-20).
He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Lk. 24:46-47)
This is Jesus mandate to the church until he returns. To preach his gospel to make disciples and then to teach them his word to build them up in the faith and to equip them to a walk of obedience to the will of God. But notice that the mandate in the preaching of the gospel is to ‘make disciples’. This is first. It means to declare the full content of the gospel related to the person of Christ and his once-for-all, all-sufficient work of atonement on the cross and justification by him alone through faith alone and deliverance from all judgment and forgiveness of sins. But it also means declaring to men the need to repent of sin and lawlessness and commit their hearts and lives to Christ as Lord to become his disciple or follower in meeting the conditions he lays down in Luke 9:23-26 and Luke 14:26-33. The Great Commission is the call of Christ to preach the gospel and to make disciples by which is means true converts. The term convert is defined by the term disciple. The moment a man or woman responds in full obedience to the full gospel which includes Christ’s call to a discipleship commitment they are made a disciple. They are then to be baptized and taught the word of God for the remainder of their lives so that they now grow and mature as a disciple.
And part of that obedience is commitment to and preaching of the gospel. Actually proclaiming it. This is the calling of God on the church. It is the purpose for its existence. Such a commitment will lead to persecution and suffering as it did for the person of Jesus. But it is a calling that Christ says must be fulfilled. Obedience to his command is one of the evidences of true spirituality and love for Christ.
And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels (Mk. 8:34-38).
A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household! Therefore do not fear them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell…Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it (Matt. 10:24-28, 32–39).
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Tim. 4:1-5).
For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me (Phil. 1:7)
And then Paul gives a very sober warning related to being committed to the gospel as far as its doctrinal content is concerned. It is a severe warning to beware of distorting its message:
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ (Gal. 1:6-10)
Paul tells us that a true servant of Christ and a true Church will be committed to the biblical gospel. In fact, Paul tells us that he worships God in his spirit through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus (Rom. 1:9). Jesus tells us that to profess his name but not be committed to the true gospel as he and the New Testament define that message and its proclamation and application is to deny him and to be ashamed of him. In which case he says that in the day of judgment he will be ashamed of and will deny them (Lk. 9:26). The calling of the Church is to be committed to the defense and confirmation and preaching of the gospel. To publicly proclaim it and to guard it (Phil. 1:7; 2 Tim. 1:14). To distort the essential truths of that message in any way is to place oneself under the anathema of God (Gal. 1:6-9). What could be more sobering than this? And Jesus warns us that we must make a choice as to whether we will put devotion to an institution and the opinions of men as a first priority in our lives or love for him in being committed to the gospel. To be truly committed to the gospel means a willingness to challenge and oppose all men and organizations or churches that would oppose the truth. It is to place love for Christ above the desire to be accepted and esteemed by men. And that will mean the experience of the rejection and persecution of men. It will mean walking a path of suffering. As a disciple and slave of Christ, his follower is committed to the gospel and Jesus tells us that to follow him in this way requires the taking up of a daily cross to die to the world and men and to persevere in commitment to truth no matter what we encounter in the response of men. Jesus says:
Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. But beware of men, for they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues; and you will even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles…Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved…A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household! Therefore do not fear them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Mt. 10:16-18, 21-22, 24-28).
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Mt. 5:10-12)
As Jesus himself declares, he did not come to bring peace but a sword. He came to bring division. He came to bring truth to confront error and that means we must be willing to start with the church. The suffering the New Testament Epistles and Gospels speak of in following Christ is not some self imposed asceticism but comes as a result of commitment to the gospel. Its what the Lord Jesus says will be the experience of all who truly follow Him. One of the marks of a true follower of Christ and sanctification and the concept of theosis from a biblical perspective is commitment to the gospel and its proclamation. True sanctification means conformity to the image of Christ and he was, and is, a man supremely committed to the gospel. It is important to remind ourselves that the ministry of Jesus of preaching the gospel and correcting error was directed to the professing church of his day. He was called to confront a nation that had distorted the word of God and the gospel through its tradition and had fallen into superficiality and spiritual and moral corruption. The answer to that superficiality and corruption was not to call the men of his day to a deeper commitment to spiritual disciplines and asceticism but to the gospel and the experience of real conversion and salvation. Before the church can even begin to think about the world outside the church it must first put its own house in order. For if the church is characterized in the main by a rampant superficiality and corruption as defined by MTD then one must deal with the root cause of that problem which is a failure to preach the true biblical gospel.
Paul tells us that the gospel is the power of God to salvation (Rom 1:16). Therefore, if it is divine power and will deliver men from MTD and the corruption and superficiality described by Dreher—and it will—then that means we must proclaim the truth in opposition to the false and deficient teaching in the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Evangelical communions that is responsible for the problem. The Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches each deny the sufficiency of the atonement of Christ to deal with the guilt and condemnation of sin and justification by faith alone in Christ alone to receive his imputed righteousness. Each church grounds salvation in intellectual assent to certain dogmas, belief and adherence to the sacraments and works righteousness. Salvation is basically the Church. And there certainly is no call to men to repent of lawless hearts and lives in conformity with the call of Jesus to men to commit themselves to him as Lord to become his follower. As I mentioned, I spent 3 1/2 years in a school associated with a Benedictine monastery and there simply is no gospel there. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are both legalistic and antinomian. In order to know Christ and enter into the experience of the power of God to salvation they must repent of the errors of legalism and lawlessness and embrace the biblical gospel. And while evangelicalism has repudiated the error of legalism it has fallen into the error of antinomianism in its rejection of the need for repentance from lawlessness and submission to Christ as Lord to be his follower. In most evangelical churches the commitment of discipleship is a second step in one’s christian experience and not necessary for salvation. This leaves men believing they can profess Christ and trust him for salvation on the basis of his work of atonement and be saved, all the while remaining in lawlessness or antinomianism. Its a false gospel that contradicts the teaching of Christ.
The only biblical answer to the deadness of the professing church of our day is the preaching of the gospel. Rod Dreher’s solution is no solution because it does not address the heart of the issue. There could be nothing worse than urging men to simply add a commitment of religiosity to a lawless heart where you have a theological foundation of a false gospel. He is endorsing a group of Roman Catholic monks whose foundation is a Roman Catholic soteriology and teaching that is antithetical to biblical salvation. The spirituality he is endorsing is therefore not a biblical spirituality. To follow Christ truly we must be committed to Him and His will. And a significant aspect of what it means to be committed to His will is commitment to the gospel and its proclamation.
In The Benedict Option Rod extols the spiritual virtues of the self imposed asceticism of the monks of Nursia and the physical suffering they endure as a result. He suggests this is a work of deep spirituality because it produces self-denial. He makes these comments:
Many of us are not prepared to suffer deprivation for our faith. This is why asceticism—taking on physical rigors for the sake of a spiritual goal—is such an important part of the ordinary Christian life…Asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis, meaning “training.” The life prescribed by the Rule is thoroughly ascetic. Monks fast regularly, refuse comfort, and abide by the strict rules of the monastery. This not a matter of earning spiritual merit. Rather, the monk knows the human heart and how its passions must be reined in through disciplined living. Asceticism is an antidote to the poison of self-centeredness common in our culture, which teaches us that satisfying our own desires is the key to the good life. The ascetic knows that true happiness can be found only by living in harmony with the will of God, and ascetical practices train body and soul to put God above self…A Christian who practices asceticism trains himself to say no to his desires and yes to God. That mentality has all but disappeared from the West in modern times. We have become a people oriented around comfort. We expect our religion to be comfortable. Suffering doesn’t make sense to us. And without fasting and other ascetic disciplines, we lose the ability to tell ourselves no to things our hearts desire…In the teaching of the Desert Fathers, every Christian struggles to root out all desires within their hearts that do not harmonize with God’s will…”Suffering is part of the pursuit of Jesus Christ, who suffered first before His glory,” says Brother Ignatius. “To encounter God, you too need to suffer, and to be willing to experience suffering.” Relearning asceticism—that is, how to suffer for the faith—is critical training for Christians living in the world today and the world of the near future (The Benedict Option (New York: Penguin Random House, 2017), pp. 63-65).
While one can sympathize with the sincerity of the thoughts expressed above, they are, sadly, misguided. The problem is, this is not the kind of self denial the Scriptures emphasize. It does not get down to the root of sin. It is no real evidence of true spirituality or real righteousness. This is a call to spiritual disciplines and asceticism that is completely divorced from the biblical gospel and promotes an unbiblical concept of suffering. There is much stated about being in submission to the will of God and learning to deny self in the above quote but being in submission to the will of God is defined by His word and that begins with being submitted and committed to His gospel. If God’s word repudiates the notion of ascetic practices independent of a life grounded on the foundation of a right gospel, then promotion of such practices is not being conformed to the will of God, all claims to the contrary. Asceticism, Paul says, has ‘the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence’ (Col. 2:23). The kind of self-denial Scripture speaks to is Jesus’ call to repentance and discipleship—of turning from self-righteousness, self-rule and self-will—to trust in Christ alone for His righteousness and to submit one’s life wholly to Him. This then produces a heart of poverty of spirit and meekness. But it also produces a heart and life committed to the gospel and that commitment will lead to the experience of real suffering for Christ’s sake. Out of supreme love for Christ a true disciple and follower will stand and proclaim truth to those who are opposed to it, even if it is those of one’s own communion. This is the kind of suffering Jesus and the Scriptures underscore. It is not the suffering of a self-imposed asceticism. In the above quotation mention is made that Jesus suffered before his glory. That is certainly true. But the nature of the suffering was not related to asceticism but because of his commitment to the word of God and the gospel.
Therefore, if the Church is going to have the strength and power to withstand the darkness, it must have the power of God. And to have that it must have the experience of the true salvation that comes from the gospel. And since, by Rod’s own evaluation, the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and majority of evangelical churches are dominated by MTD, then those in the professing Church have never experienced true salvation and the Church, across the board, needs the gospel. But it needs the gospel of Jesus and the word of God and the Reformers. This is not found in Rome, Orthodoxy or mainstream evangelicalism. That means that, like Jesus confronting the Church of his day, the truth must be preached to apostate communions which requires the exposing of the various errors associated with them and how they have departed from biblical truth. That will have a twofold effect. First of all, it will result in persecution, rejection and suffering, as it did for Jesus. But secondly, it will also result in a powerful movement of God to transform individual lives and to begin to build a real community that will be salt and light in its personal commitment to Christ and his word and a walk of holiness, righteousness and obedience. A life of daily self-denial for the sake of Christ. And will also lead to the bold and aggressive proclamation of his gospel and his word to build his Church and reach the world. So that through a transformed life and the proclamation of truth those individuals become salt and light in and to the world. This is the biblical answer to the crisis facing the Church today.
But that raises a dilemma for men like Rod Dreher. In light of the truth of the gospel that we have examined and the deficiencies of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and the majority of Evangelicalism, the word of God calls men and women in those communions to renounce the false teachings associated with them and embrace the truth. This is what the Jews of Jesus’ day had to do when faced with the truth as taught by Jesus and they would suffer expulsion from the synagogue. When Jews were converted to Christ after Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the epistle to the Hebrews reveals they suffered intense persecution for their commitment to Jesus and his gospel. Inherent in their commitment to the truth was opposition to the nation to which they had previously belonged. A great division and separation took place. And the same thing will take place for any evangelical, Roman Catholic or Orthodox who fully embraces and becomes fully committed to the gospel. They can no longer be associated with an organization that stands opposed to the gospel and in standing for truth they will be persecuted by the very communion they were formerly associated with. Is Rod Dreher ready to embrace God’s answer to the problem he very eloquently exposes in the Church? Is he willing to forsake the errors of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy with respect to the gospel and wholly commit his heart and life to Christ on the basis of that gospel, and then stand for that truth in calling those within Orthodoxy as well as the broader landscape of professing Christendom to repentance and true commitment to Christ? That would lead to the experience of real suffering, but suffering that flows out of a submission to the will of God. This is what all who hear the gospel and become committed to Christ must do whether they be Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Evangelical. Commitment to this gospel, which is an evidence of love for Christ, must supersede a commitment to a particular communion or relationship with men. Love for Christ must be the supreme commitment of our hearts and lives.
Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it (Matt. 10:32–39).
The real option for the present state of spiritual corruption within the church is not the Benedict Option but the Gospel Option—the gospel of Jesus and the word of God. It is the biblical gospel that affirms the radical teaching of Jesus which alone is the power of God to salvation and which will bring men into a real relationship with Christ, where, like the believers of the first century, they will be able to withstand the encroaching darkness and be salt and light to the world through His power and grace.